Chuck Connors' 1958 to 1963 run as Lucas McCain, the Winchester rifle-toting lead character of the ABC Western series The Rifleman, would be enough to make him a pop culture icon, thanks in part to show's constant presence on cable television. Yet just as Ken Curtis found fame beyond his role as lovable Gunsmoke character Festus, Connors' life and times included everything from Hollywood film roles to stints as a professional athlete for both Major League Baseball and the NBA.
Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was born on April 10, 1921 in Brooklyn, New York. His run as a high-profile athlete began as a baseball and basketball player in high school at Adelphi Academy. He also played both sports at Seton Hall University, where he started going by the nickname Chuck.
Connors left college early in 1940 to play minor league baseball, first for his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers' affiliate the Newport Dodgers and later for the New York Yankees farm club the Norfolk Tars.
After serving in the United States Army during World War II, Connors returned to professional sports in 1946 as a member of the Boston Celtics for the Basketball Association of America's (BAA) inaugural season. The BAA merged with another league, the NBL, in 1949 and changed its name to the NBA.
During warm-ups before the Celtic's first-ever home game, Connors may have been the first professional basketball player to pull off a Sportscenter Top Plays gimme by shattering a glass backboard.
Connors' run as an original Boston Celtic ended after just 53 games, opening the door for his return to baseball. After cutting his teeth with the Brooklyn Dodgers' AAA affiliate the Montreal Royals, Connors debuted for his home town Major League club as a first basemen on May 1, 1949. After just one game in the big leagues, Connors returned to Montreal before getting a shot in 1951 with the Chicago Cubs. Following 66 games on the Cubs' active roster, Connors ended his baseball career in 1952 with the Los Angeles Angels (a Cubs farm team, not the MLB club founded in 1961 by longtime owner Gene Autry).
Even if Connors didn't exactly put up Hall of Fame numbers in either baseball or basketball, only so many talented athletes go pro in one sport, much less two. In fact, the future Rifleman star is just one of 13 former professional baseball players to ever suit up for an NBA team, with the others being Danny Ainge, Frank Baumholtz, Gene Conley, Dave DeBusschere, Johnny Gee, Dick Groat, Steve Hamilton, Mark Hendrickson, Cotton Nash, Ron Reed, Dick Ricketts and Howie Schultz. Plus, how many other small screen cowboys hit two career home runs against major league pitching?
After his sports career, Connors set his sights on Hollywood. That transition found the 6'6" actor sharing scenes with Spencer Tracy and Audrey Hepburn (Pat and Mike, 1952), Burt Lancaster (South Sea Woman, 1953), John Wayne (Trouble Along the Way, 1953), Gregory Peck and Charleton Heston (The Big Country, 1958), Doris Day and James Garner (Move Over, Darling, 1963) and even Kenny Rogers (The Gambler Returns: Luck of the Draw, 1991). Other film roles of note came in everything from Disney's Old Yeller and the sci-fi classic Soylent Green to Airplane II: The Sequel.
While Connors' work as the star of popular television series The Rifleman (and his on-screen father-son dynamic with co-star Johnny Crawford) needs no introduction, he also made an impact through other television roles. These include appearances in ABC's Law and Order forerunner Arrest and Trial (1963-'64) and an Emmy nominated performance as a slave owner in the 1977 miniseries Roots.
Connors' marriage to the mother of his four sons, Elizabeth Jane Riddell, lasted from 1948 to 1961. He was wed to Kamala Devi, his co-star in the film Geronimo and the TV series Branded and Cowboy in Africa, from 1963 to 1973. His third and final wife, Faith Quabius (1977-1980), was a co-star from Soylent Green.
A life that included everything from living out many young boys' big league baseball dreams to interactions with Soviet Union leader and Rifleman superfan Leonid Brezhnev ended on Nov. 10, 1992 when Connors lost a lengthy battle with lung cancer.